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The Lack of Design in Nature?

Essay by Jeff Lindsay, April 2003; Updated May 2005
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Design Flaws versus Intelligent Design:
The Perspective of an Engineer and Inventor

An interesting document on the TalkOrigins Web site tries to dispel the notion that everything in nature has been designed. Rather, life is said to be jury-rigged, with abundant signs of the illogical developments one would expect if life evolved along random pathways without intervention from a designer. The article points to interesting examples of alleged "flaws" in the design of various species which are construed to argue against design.

However, as an engineer, I know that what looks like a flaw is often the result of practical limitations caused by tradeoffs between conflicting design objectives. For example, cars will be heavily damaged by collisions at just 30 mph, so why aren't bumpers designed to be big enough to absorb the impact without damage to the rest of the vehicle? Design flaw? And why aren't bumpers on the sides of the cars as well? But there are new problems created in other areas when we make bumpers larger or heavier or place them on the sides. There are practical limitations to the width and length of vehicles, and heavier bumpers can reduce gas mileage and the maneuverability of the vehicle. In reality, almost every feature in a designed structure such as a car is a compromise between competing objectives: safety, comfort, aesthetics, cost, ease of manufacturing, ease of repair (an objective often overlooked), stability, speed and acceleration, and so forth. Generally, not every desirable objective can be met.

In my current work, I often work on inventions that become patents. Those who invent know that many of the most clever inventions are non-intuitive. Inventions often come when the inventor encounters a problem with the "obvious" way of doing things, and then finds an alternative that violates old assumptions. Those who are ignorant may look at the invention and dismiss it as fundamentally flawed for its failure to conform to simple paradigms of the past - but what at first looks like a design flaw may hold a brilliant breakthrough.

Consider the modern bicycle, for example. The old paradigm held that at least three wheels would be needed, with two spaced apart laterally on an axle to provide stability. The idea that riders could move more effectively on just two wheels was initially quite counterintuitive. The same applies to the placement of pedals: the "logical" design would be to place them directly on the wheel being driven, as was done in the past, not on a separate sprocket separated from the drive wheel by a chain. To one who is ignorant about bicycles, the design of a child's tricycle may seem vastly more logical and intelligent, but the "design flaws" of the modern bicycle are key to its superiority. Let those who point to alleged design flaws in nature beware: the crudest of logic and the simplest of engineering skills are behind the allegations. Will the assertion hold up as we learn more about the inspiring brilliance in the design of life?

The fact that someone thinks they can propose a change for a minor improvement in one design objective is hardly noteworthy. And those who make that point probably have little experience with design, for it is well known that "simple" changes in complex systems often have major, hard-to-predict consequences - a fact that engineers learn over and over as they design and try new machines and products. In the paper industry, for example, it is amazing how a small change in one part of a paper machine may lead to disaster elsewhere in the papermaking process. The interconnectedness and complexity of a paper machine is nothing compared to the human body. Before we assume that we have spotted a "design flaw," we need to know the consequences of "fixing" the flaw.

Given the numerous constraints and problems that stand in the way of life, it is amazing that life can exist at all, much less offer the richness and beauty that we experience. Remember, biological structures must be encodable in DNA, must be morphologically accessible in finite steps beginning with a single cell, must maintain precise chemical balances, etc., etc. I suspect that some of the remarkably few so-called "design flaws" in nature may be the result of the compromises required by practical considerations (or may even be the result of deleterious mutations). Such compromises in no way impugn the intelligence of the designer - and in many cases, the alleged design flaw proves to be a masterpiece of brilliant engineering that solves overwhelming challenges. Given all this, I find the evidence for design to be overwhelming - and humbling.

In fact, the evidence for design, when honestly considered, is so powerful that it can even lead "devout atheists" to conclude that there must be some kind of intelligent being who worked to make life possible. Consider the amazing story of the internationally famous atheist, Antony Flew, who now concedes that there must be Intelligence behind it all. I discuss the story of the atheist who now believes in God in a post at Mormanity (a blog of mine).

Alleged Design Flaws in the Human Eye

One example of an apparent "design flaw" is alleged to exist in what has got to be one of the most obvious and awe-inspiring examples of intelligent design, the human eye. Yet the retina of the human eye has long been cited as an example of an obvious design flaw that one might expect from random evolutionary origins, but not from intelligent design. The alleged problem is that the nerves that carry signals from the retina to the brain are clumsily placed in front of the retina rather than behind it, as is a network of blood vessels. Having the nerves in front of the retina can reduce the clarity of vision (though they are nearly transparent), so it's easy to assume that a better design would be to place the nerves behind the retina, out of the path of light coming to the photoreceptive cells in the retina. Another alleged design flaw is that the nerves in front of the retina must poke through the retina to reach the brain, resulting in the small blind spot that all humans have. These arguments have been repeated thousands of times. One example is at PBS.org, on the page Less-than-perfect Vision in a section on evolution. According to this page:
Do these design problems exist because it is impossible to construct an eye that is wired properly, so that the light-sensitive cells face the incoming image? Not at all. Many organisms have eyes in which the neural wiring is neatly tucked away behind the photoreceptor layer. The squid and the octopus, for example, have a lens-and-retina eye quite similar to our own, but their eyes are wired right-side out, with no light-scattering nerve cells or blood vessels in front of the photoreceptors, and no blind spot.
This argument is based on the assumption that the human eye does not see well compared to an octopus. Is there any evidence that our sight is suboptimal relative to the octopus? The argument is based on a simple-minded assumption and ignorance of what the retina actually does. Do we really understand the complexities of the retina enough to address this issue?

This argument for design flaws in the eye is based entirely on our ignorance of the human body. Yes, it would seem better at first glance to put the nerves behind the retina, but what are the tradeoffs involved? What valuable functions would be lost by moving the location of the nerves? Would other complex changes have to be made in order for the system to work? Perhaps the proposed rerouting of the nerves in the eye is not even possible without major deleterious changes to the body. (It can be done in the octopus, but does that tell us anything about primates?) The complex sequence of changes that occur as the human egg develops into an embryo places restraints on what parts of the body can go where - and perhaps the retina and the nerves of the eye are constrained by this process in humans. Perhaps the genetic alteration required to move the nerves behind the retina would lead to undesired consequences to blood chemistry, brain function, or other systems.

The human body is not a mass of Lego blocks that can be disconnected and reassembled into any arbitrary structure by a designer. It is a bewilderingly complex expression of a DNA molecule that begins in a single cell. Everything in the human body must be obtained by following extremely restricted pathways of possibility based on what can develop from one cell that multiplies and differentiates into an embryo, as regulated by that single DNA molecule. It is more than we can comprehend that it is even possible to obtain integrated, cooperating, functioning organs in a living body that began with one cell, and more than we can comprehend that an instrument so advanced and capable as the human eye can even be achieved within such limitations - and now we are supposed to suppress our awe to quibble over where the nerves to the retina go?

What were the tradeoffs in the design of nerves to the retina? What problems would occur if the DNA were altered in the best attempt to move the nerves to obtain a marginal boost in visual clarity? We don't know - but the eye remains as strong evidence of not just intelligent design, but stunningly brilliant design, especially in light of the most recent discoveries about the complex and powerful role played by the neural circuitry in front of the photoreceptors, which appear to provide crucial functions that might not be possible were we to rewire our eyes like those of an octopus. Let's turn our focus to these details.

Understanding How the Retina Really Works:
Looking God or Chance in the Eye?

According to a leading researcher on the retina, Dr. Helga Kolb of the University of Utah, recent breakthroughs in understanding the retina now allow us to explain about 50% of its neurological features - but even based on that 50%, our current understanding of the retina, in my opinion, should silence anyone who thinks that simplistic engineering skills can come up with a better design. Dr. Kolb summarizes modern knowledge of the retina in her article, "How the Retina Works," in American Scientist, Vol. 91, No. 1, Jan.-Feb. 2003, pp. 28-35 (PDF file--there is also an HTML version of the article). Dr. Kolb points out that the nerves in front of the retina play important roles in processing signals - and some are even photoreceptive themselves. Though we still know very little about how our eyes and octopus eyes work, there is good reason to believe that the complex neural circuitry of the human retina - coupled with some photoreceptive nerve cells - provides advantages in vision that meet our needs better than an octopus eye could do.

In Dr. Kolb's section on parallel processing, Dr. Kolb discusses the complex role of the nerves in front of the photoreceptors. Cells such as "horizontal cells" and "bipolar cells" (see Kolb's Figure 3) play important roles in bringing clarity and definition to the image:

If the retina were simply to transmit opposite-contrast images directly from the photoreceptors to the brain, the resulting vision would probably be coarse-grained and blurry. Further processing in the retina defines precise edges to images and allows us to focus on fine details. The honing of the image starts at the first synaptic level in the retina, where horizontal cells receive input from cones. Each horizontal cell actually receives input from many cones, so its collection area or receptive field is large. Horizontal cells' receptive fields become even broader because their plasma membranes fuse with those of neighboring horizontal cells at gap junctions. The membrane potentials of a whole sheet of cells become the same; consequently, horizontal cells respond to light over a very large area. Meanwhile, a single bipolar cell receives input from a handful of cones and thus has a medium-size receptive field. (pp. 30-31)
A critical part of the image processing that occurs in the neural circuitry of the retina involves chemical and electrical signals that, I infer, would be hindered if the nerves were moved behind the photoreceptors. According to Kolb:
Whereas a single bipolar cell with its OFF or ON light response would carry a fairly blurry response to its ganglion cell, horizontal cells add an opponent signal that is spatially constrictive, giving the bipolar cell what is known as a center surround organization (Figure 9). The bipolar center signals either ON or OFF, and the horizontal cells add an OFF or ON surround signal, by one of two means. The horizontal cells can either signal the bipolar cell or feed information back to the cone photoreceptors themselves, which then feed forward information to the bipolar cells the cones contact. Feedback to the cones is now proposed to occur by means of an unusual electrical synapse consisting of half a gap junction; these hemi gap junctions are thought to change the ionic environment across the membrane of the cone photoreceptor. This complicated circuit from horizontal cell to cone to bipolar cells is still a subject of hot debate in the community of retina scientists.

Horizontal-cell function has occupied many vision scientists for decades, and much is now known about the role of these cells in the organization of visual messages. Horizontal cells respond to more than the photoreceptors that link to them. Feedback signals from the inner plexiform layer [part of the neural circuitry in front of the photoreceptors - see Kolb's Figure 3] influence horizontal-cell activity as well. These feedback signals are transmitted via substances such as dopamine, nitric oxide and retinoic acid. The result is that horizontal cells modulate the photoreceptor signal under different lighting conditions -- allowing signaling to become less sensitive in bright light and more sensitive in dim light -- as well as shaping the receptive field of the bipolar cells, as we have seen. The horizontal cells can even make the bipolar cells' response color-coded, all apparently through feedback circuits to the cones.

Could these complex electrical and chemical signals behind photoreceptors and nerve cells occur as effectively if the nerves were not in the same ionic medium as the photoreceptors? Is it possible to get the same image processing power with the nerves in some other configuration? Those who insist that this is all some kind of crude design flaw have the burden of proof upon them: can they propose a superior system? But before they can do that, they must first figure out how the retina works in the first place - we're still only halfway there. The complex functions that the "illogically" placed neural circuitry plays continues to surprise and amaze scientists, and until it is better understood, it's just too early to claim that there are design flaws. Consider Kolb's comments in section 5 of her article (pp. 33, 35):
There is more to understand about the messages ganglion cells receive before they transmit a signal to the brain. For that, it is important to appreciate the organization of the inner plexiform layer, where 22 or more different types of amacrine cells make synaptic connections with about 20 different types of ganglion cells.

It was already clear from Cajal's description in the 19th century that amacrine-, ganglion- and bipolar-cell dendrites and axons were organized into distinct layers; Cajal himself divided the inner plexiform layer into five strata. But what sorts of synapses were formed among the tangle of intermeshing processes and what this organization meant were not immediately apparent. Electron microscopy helped to unravel this neurocircuitry. Now the interconnections of nine types of bipolar cells, 14 types of amacrine cells and eight types of ganglion cells are understood quite well. We can say we are half way to the goal of understanding the neural interplay between all the nerve cells in the retina. . . .

The above broad sketch of retinal circuitry suggests that the retina is remarkably complex. As vision research advances, the retina seems to take on an increasingly active role in perception. Although we do not fully understand the neural code that the ganglion-cell axons send as trains of spikes into the brain, we are coming close to understanding how ensembles of ganglion cells respond differently to aspects of the visual scene and how fields of influence on particular ganglion cells are constructed. Much of the construction of the visual images does seem to take place in the retina itself, although the final perception of sight is indisputably done in the brain.

Kolb mentions one surprising discovery that points to at least one obvious function that could not be achieved with nerves behind the photoreceptors: part of the neural circuitry acts as a photoreceptor itself, independent of the rods and cones. As Kolb explains (p. 35):
The most recent surprise has been that a previously unknown ganglion cell type appears to function as a giant photoreceptor itself, without needing input from rods or cones. This ganglion's cell membrane contains light-reactive molecules known as melanopsins. Given such unexpected findings, it appears that there may still be much more to learn about how the retina works.
Given this, I challenge those who think the eye is an example of a design flaw to explain:
  • How do you know that you would see better if your eye was rewired according to the design you think is more logical?
  • Can you provide the image processing functions of the neural circuitry in front of the photoreceptors by moving the nerves to some other place?
  • Can you provide the benefits of photoreceptive ganglion cells by moving them elsewhere?
  • What problems are associated with rerouting the nerves?

A reasonable discussion of the possible design benefits of the human system versus the octopus design is given by an author at the Earth History Research Center at http://origins.swau.edu/q_and_a/evol/questions/q6.html, from which the following excerpt is quoted:

Which design is best? This is not an easy question to answer. In the vertebrate eye, the photoreceptor cells lie in contact with the opaque pigment epithelium. This tissue prevents the transmission of light past the eye, and also is involved in the critical process of recycling exposed photopigments, a critical process for eyes of animals that are very active, since it allows for tight packing of photoreceptor cells and rapid recycling of used photopigments. The invertebrate eye, that lacks this feature, may have to sacrifice the ability to keep up a sustained high level of visual acuity for the possible gain in visual acuity, but this is only speculation. In any case it is far premature to conclude that one design or the other is inferior without having physiological bases for such statements.

As research on the functionality of the eye continues, we learn more of its fantastic ability to receive and process signals. The more we learn, the more we are convinced that no plausible mechanism in evolution can produce such a structure with the properties it possesses. This trend, and past experience assure us that when we have a fuller knowledge of the functional properties of the vertebrate eye, we will understand why the retina is designed the way it is. Recent developments along this line include an article in Nature by M.J. Berry II, I.H.Brivanlou , T.A. Jordan and M. Meister, entitled "Anticipation of moving stimuli by the retina," (398:334-338). In this article the authors explore one of the most phenomenal feats of optical response ever discovered: the ability to precisely anticipate the position of a moving object at the level of the retina.Gegenfurtner, in an article in the same issue ("Neurobiology: The eyes have it!" 398), summarizing the paper by Berry, et. al, states:

"But the visual system can circumvent such delays [between detection and response to a moving object] by anticipating the path of moving stimuli. Such motion anticipation was assumed to be controlled by high-level motion areas of the visual cortex. Now, very much to our surprise, Berry et al. (page 334 of this issue) report that motion anticipation is already accomplished to a large extent in the retina, by neural circuits that were discovered long ago."

"In a stunning surprise, Berry et al. now show that motion anticipation not only starts at the retina, the first stage of processing in the visual system, but that it also follows from current models of retinal processing. The basic ingredients are all well studied and common to many stages of processing in the visual system. So how do these ingredients work to produce motion anticipation? The most important part of the process is actually the simplest -namely that retinal ganglion cells pool their inputs over large regions of the visual scene (their receptive fields)." (p291).

Barry, et. al. in the article demonstrate how the eye performs calculus in order to solve the problems of the future location of a moving object, for example, a baseball batter responding to a fastball:
"In this scenario, the retina integrates the light stimulus over space and time, with a weighting function k(x,t) given by the ganglion cell's receptive field, and the resulting signal determines the neuron's firing rate."
This amazing new understanding of how the "backward" retina can perform calculations of a very high order is no deterrent to evolutionists, who quickly integrate evolution into our understanding of the process. To explain the existence of this phenomenal ability in the retina, Gegenfurtner suggests:
"If, for example, we assume a processing delay of about 100 ms [the time necessary for processing an impulse in the visual cortex of the brain], an animal (or a car nowadays) moving at a speed of 40 km per hour would be seen more than one metre behind its actual position. To overcome this potentially lethal problem, evolution has selected (emphasis added) mechanisms that anticipate the path of motion." (Gegenfurtner, p291).
That statement illustrates the expectations of evolution and flies in the face of the assertions of Gould and Dawkins that evolution is a science of mistakes and wrong pathways. In fact, evolution appears to be defined in a circular manner, as the science of what is. When a marvelous organ such as the eye that is unfathomably complex is encountered, evolutionists apparently feel the need to find some flaw in it that can be used to distract attention from the problem the existence of such complexity presents for evolution.

The eye remains one of the most intractable arguments for a Designer in nature, and suggestions to the contrary are without scientific merit. Those who protest that the eye is poorly designed are being challenged to design a better one, or to show how it might be improved. Until they convincingly do so, this argument cannot be taken seriously.

George Ayoub of the Department of Biology at Westmont College (Santa Barbara, California) has an article entitled "On the Design of the Vertebrate Retina" in Origins & Design, Vol. 17, No. 1, 1996, available at http://www.arn.org/docs/odesign/od171/retina171.htm. Ayoub explores the critical role of the retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE) and offers possible reasons why it needs to be located where it is to meet the demands of vision for humans. He notes that the wiring of the human eye (and that of numerous other creatures, other than the squid and octopus) may be crucial for providing the clarity and rapid image processing that invertebrates have. Photoreceptor cells are partially regenerated each day as they grow, shedding off waste material at the ends facing the pigment epithelium at the back of the retina. The pigment epithelium removes the spent outer segments of the photoreceptors. If the wiring were turned around, photopigments would not be as effectively recycled and could hinder vision or make it difficult to have the dense packing of photoreceptors that we enjoy. Again, there are many complex issues such as recycling of photopigment wastes that need to be considered in the design of an eye. It is very bad science to conclude that there is a design flaw based on five seconds of analysis, considering only one issue and not the dozens of other factors that must be considered in the design of an eye or any other complex tool.

The Complexity of the Eye: Seeing the Big Picture

How do those who deny design explain the complexity of the eye? A telling example is given by Jennifer Ackerman in the popular book, Chance in the House of Fate: A Natural History of Heredity (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001, pp. 89-90):
When Charles Darwin first presented his theory of evolution, the human eye was used as a favorite example to point out the weakness of the theory. How could this complex system of perfectly synchronized and integrated parts have come about little by little? How could cornea, lens, retina -- not to mention the three sets of muscles that move the eyes back and forth, up and down, several times a second, and the fine circuit of nerves that links all of these components and controls their actions -- how could these multiple parts, arranged in perfect geometry, have been spontaneously assembled over time by the blind force of natural selection? Wasn't it far more likely that the fabulous eye popped into existence all at once, a creative act of God? The riddle of how such an exquisite organ could have arisen by chance gave Darwin himself a cold shudder. In a chapter of Origin of Species entitled "Difficulties of the Theory," he wrote:
To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.
But in the end he found he could accommodate even this miracle within his theory:
If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find no such case.
Step by step, through the accumulation of small changes over time, a simple, imperfect eye is transformed into a complex one.
Just what was the scientific evidence that allowed Darwin to gloss over the conundrum of the eye? How, after admitting the prima facie absurdity of its creation by natural selection, did he resolve the eye with his theory? From my perspective, it appears to have been a matter of faith for him. Ackerman also, like many other scientists, treats the accumulation of numerous small, accidental changes to gradually but blindly create and perfect the eye as a given, as an unproven article of faith, a faith premised on the unprovable assumption that there are no miracles and that there is no Creator.

Ackerman attempts to buttress Darwin's faith by reporting the work of scientists who did a computer simulation to track minor morphological mutations of a simple light detecting structure with a flat lens and found that in a reasonable small number of minor mutations, the optics could gradually be improved until a sophisticated lens evolved. And I could do the same with a thousand other systems, making computer generated improvements that would gradually improve an overall system - without ever facing the rigorous demands of the real world in which each change is a compromise that may affect the entire system in unexpected ways. It is one thing to show that a series of small geometric changes can successively improve vision and lead to a better optical system, but it is quite another thing to show that a series of plausible mutations in the DNA could occur, each of which would affect the overall biological system in a way that increased the chances of survival for the creature.

So intricate and intelligent is the design of the eye that even that which seems like a shortcoming at first glance becomes evidence of incredibly sophisticated engineering once we learn more. As yet another example of this phenomenon, the prestigious journal Nature recently carried an article entitled "Imperfect Optics May Be the Eye's Defense against Chromatic Blur" by James S. McLellan (Schepens Eye Research Institute, Boston), Susana Marcos (Institute of Optics, Madrid), Pedro M. Prieto (Optics Lab of the University of Murcia in Spain), and Stephen A. Burns (Schepens Eye Research Institute). They note that it has long been assumed that chromatic aberration - the problem of light of different wavelengths refracting to different degrees as it passes through a lens - caused a degree of blurring for blue light (shorter wavelength light) that made blue light unable to contribute significantly to spatial vision when the eye is focussed for mid-spectral wavelengths. Their research, combining study of human subjects with computer modeling of the optics, revealed that the design of the eye was more robust than previously thought:

It has been widely assumed that the chromatic defocus from the eye's optics degrades the retinal image of short-wavelength light. But this assumption has not previously been tested in a manner that takes into account all of the eye's optical aberrations, measured at multiple wavelengths. We have shown that there is actually very little variability in the eye's image quality, as quantified by MTF [modulation transfer function - a tool employing Fourier transforms to give a measure of relative contrast attenuation of an image caused by the optics of the eye] across the visible spectrum. Wave aberrations cause the visual system to sacrifice resolution at a single wavelength but allow it to gain approximate constancy in spatial sensitivity across the spectrum. This constancy might provide an even more effective solution to the problems of chromatic blur than could be attained by attenuation and sparse sampling of short-wavelength light in an eye with perfect optics. [emphasis added]

The Nuts and Bolts of Life

The concept of design is especially obvious when we see similar tools, parts, and engineering solutions applied to widely varied and largely unrelated creatures. Human engineers use a common set of tools and parts in many different settings. The same nuts and bolts, rivets, gaskets, heat exchangers, I-beams, stainless steel alloys, copper wiring, batteries, polymer foams, composite materials, etc., will be found in many diverse objects -- not because the objects all have a common ancestor, but because they were designed by designers having a common set of engineering solutions and materials to use. Evolutionists try to force evolutionary relationships between creatures having common tools and engineering solutions even when the relationships just don't make any sense. A simple example is the recently discovered "Dll" gene, as reported in the magazine Discover (Jan. 1998). The same gene for creating limbs in an embryo is found in so many creatures so widely separated (e.g., insects and mammals) that the only way for that gene to have developed by evolution in a common ancestor was if that ancestor was an ancient lowly worm - but the worm had no limbs and would not have had any apparent need for the Dll gene. Evolution just makes no sense here, but design by a Designer with a powerful set of tools - including the Dll gene - is the most rational explanation.

The difficulty of pathways from one organism to the other is further highlighted by recent discoveries about genome sequences which show that previously assumed, seemingly logical relationships between species are actually complex and problematic. Examination of genome data has now shown that many organisms seem to have a mix of DNA material. Some eukaryotes contain features of both bacteria and archaea, according to Russell Doolittle, a molecular biologist at the University of California, San Diego. Gene swapping is being offered as an explanation, but again one could argue that a designer using a common toolkit could explain the similar DNA tools found across such diverse species.

More than Nuts and Bolts: Implications of "Elegant" Design

One of the top science stories of 2001 was the sequencing of the human genome. A big surprise was the number of human genes. Scientists were expecting 100,000 or more, but the official count came in just over 30,000 - in the same ballpark as the lowly mustard weed, and less than twice as many genes as the primitive roundworm. The editors of Popular Science ("Human Genome: Less Code, More Complexity," Jan. 2002, p. 62) explain the implications:
That revelation injured the vanity of geneticists, who quickly rallied to the defense of human complexity. The human genome may be relatively small, these experts acknowledged, but it is inexpressibly elegant, accomplishing far more with less. . . .

In many organisms, each gene codes for a single protein, but in human, geneticists point out, that simple one-to-one ration doesn't hold. Human genes interact with one another in a variety of intricate arrangements; as a result, a single human gene is often responsible for producing a handful of proteins or more. (emphasis mine)

The "inexpressibly elegant" genetic code of human beings, in which complex interactions between genes allows many proteins to be produced from a single gene, poses a serious problem for those who deny design. Not only is it a priori evidence of elegant design, but it poses a serious challenge for those who point to alleged design flaws in their efforts to ignore the overwhelming, prima facie evidence of design. If the design flaw you point to is truly suboptimal and contrary to what an intelligent designer would do, then how would you fix this flaw with your intelligence? Which gene or genes would you change without creating a host of worse problem? Let's consider the placement of nerves relative to the retina. Do you suppose that there is a single gene whose sole purpose is to specify whether the nerves of the retina go behind or in front of the retina, and that the random forces of nature just happened to get it wrong? Or is the placement of the retina the result of the "inexpressibly elegant" interactions of multiple genes playing multiple roles, such that changing the genes to rework the placement of nerves might lead to other worse deficiencies - perhaps a fatal weakening of the spinal column, or loss of a protein needed for the inexpressibly elegant chemistry behind hearing, or increased likelihood of retinal detachment?

So many engineers, architects, and social planners have found that making a change in one system to address a problem often leads to unexpected consequences elsewhere. Arguments about design flaws are based on ignorance, and should carry little weight unless scientists can propose intelligent improvements to the human genome that do not bring about unintended disaster.

Can there Be Limitations in Divine Design?

In response to this page, one person wrote that I was putting limitations on God's power and perhaps even degrading the miracle of the Creation by suggesting that God could not design whatever he wanted. Here is my response:
Your assumptions about my views aren't quite accurate. Regardless of God's creative abilities, there are genuine physical restraints to what can be achieved in a living organism in thus universe (and what a wonderfully optimized universe this is, in terms of the basic properties of matter). While I could discuss the many limitations arising from chemical kinetics, thermodynamics, physical properties of materials, and so forth, let me simply focus on reproduction itself.

It may be possible to draw a clever design for the human body with improved piping to avoid prostrate problems, modified head structures to reduce sinus problems and improve drainage, rearranged nerves from the retina to improve clarity of vision, modified bowels to eliminate appendix problems, etc. But it is not enough to conceive the final design. One must establish a pathway that enables that final design to be reached via a continuous process beginning with a single egg that divides, grows, and undergoes cell differentiation and subsequent growth. The constraint of achieving a given design in a process that can happen spontaneously from a single cell greatly limits the possibilities. The more I learn about the operation of DNA, of the complex interactions of genes with our body, of the mysteries of cell differentiation and human development, and of the chemistry and physics of the human body, the more amazed I become that we can even exist at all, in any form. I am stunned that it was even possible to establish multicellular life, let alone a human being. Given what I feel are the inordinate design challenges and very real limitations imposed by chemistry, physics, and other restraints, I feel it is foolish to quibble about whether the prostrate gland was properly plumbed and silly to complain that our eyes aren't as sharp as possible.

Our ignorance may limit our ability to comprehend the mastery of God's creation, but what little I do comprehend moves me to know that our lives are not mere accidents. It is precisely my scientific skepticism that forces me to reject the fantastic, even farcical notion that it could all happen by accident.

My beliefs concerning the reality of God are based on far more than mere deductions from the evidence of design in nature. One can know personally of the reality and personal nature of God - and I honestly do. He is not a distant creator, "wholly other" and removed - but is a divine parent, our Father (see, for example, the LDS Proclamation on the Family). That's where the excitement really begins - the process of knowing Him. I'm sure this sounds like a raving lunatic, but there is a reality beyond the limited scope of what is taught in school. Be skeptical - don't accept at face value what is taught and argued so dogmatically. Search, ponder, and even dare to pray. There is a universe of knowledge and wonder waiting to be explored - and it doesn't require that we go about extinguishing any species from the earth.

Intelligent Deisgn: Not Just a Matter of Faith

On February 7, 2005, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece, "Design for Living" by Michael J. Behe (also available at Discovery.org). The author makes the point that the concept of intelligent design has been widely misrepresented and does not depend on religious faith.

Michael Behe is a biochemist at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, a Seattle-based organization that supports the intelligent-design movement. Here is an excerpt from his article:

Rather, the contemporary argument for intelligent design is based on physical evidence and a straightforward application of logic. The argument for it consists of four linked claims.

The first claim is uncontroversial: we can often recognize the effects of design in nature. For example, unintelligent physical forces like plate tectonics and erosion seem quite sufficient to account for the origin of the Rocky Mountains. Yet they are not enough to explain Mount Rushmore.

Of course, we know who is responsible for Mount Rushmore, but even someone who had never heard of the monument could recognize it as designed.

Which leads to the second claim of the intelligent design argument: the physical marks of design are visible in aspects of biology. This is uncontroversial, too. . . .

The next claim in the argument for design is that we have no good explanation for the foundation of life that doesn't involve intelligence. Here is where thoughtful people part company.

Darwinists assert that their theory can explain the appearance of design in life as the result of random mutation and natural selection acting over immense stretches of time.

Some scientists, however, think the Darwinists' confidence is unjustified. They note that although natural selection can explain some aspects of biology, there are no research studies indicating that Darwinian processes can make molecular machines of the complexity we find in the cell.

Scientists skeptical of Darwinian claims include many who have no truck with ideas of intelligent design, like those who advocate an idea called complexity theory, which envisions life self-organizing in roughly the same way that a hurricane does, and ones who think organisms in some sense can design themselves.

The fourth claim in the design argument is also controversial: in the absence of any convincing non-design explanation, we are justified in thinking that real intelligent design was involved in life. . . .

Interesting comments. Personally, I find the intricacies of life and the universe to be so clever and even inspiring that it is difficult to escape the natural testimony of a design. Yes, there is a Designer - and He's awfully good at what He does.

Conclusion

When I contemplate the universe, the nature of matter, and the presence of life and this planet, the great mystery is how it was possible at all. Given the range of properties of matter that could have occurred in the Big Bang or whatever happened at the Beginning - the balance between strong and weak nuclear forces, the mass of the electron, the strength of gravity, the speed of light - I am stunned that there was a choice of values for all these and many more properties that could lead to the formation of stars and planets, the existence of the water molecule and the vast world of carbon chemistry. The most fundamental building blocks of this universe are filled with evidence of intelligent design.

Then there is the marvel of DNA, of birth and reproduction, of the mind and its ability to grasp math, music, and art, to be self-aware, to love, to weep, to strive. These are not the fruits of crass natural selection blindly churning away to select the toughest predators. The eye itself is so artistic, so fantastic in its powers and design. How was it even possible to develop a complex of genes that could give us such vision? Those who will not see the splendor of Divine Creation while they complain the "illogical" placement of nerves over the retina or other minor problems suffer from a more harmful form of blindness than any biological affliction. There is a sad ingratitude among many intellectuals, based on a profound failure to appreciate just how difficult it is to design any form of life at all.

Remember, the issue is not whether you can propose an improved structure for the eye or the prostrate gland or bone structure or anything else (anyone can do that: how about X-ray vision or bullet proof skin?), but how to modify the genes to gain a physically possible benefit - without creating a cascade of deleterious interactions of the changed genes with other genes, or of the changed proteins with other chemicals and systems, or of the changed structure with other structures and processes. Those so-called design flaws may be the result of divine optimization in light of the overwhelming constraints that the Designer must work with. But if you can do better, with your own supreme intelligence, show us your stuff!


Beam back to Jeff Lindsay's planet

Death of the Big Bang

Famous atheist now believes in God - the evidence for intelligent design just couldn't be ignored any longer.

Sci-Cops and the Secret of Software Evolution - A Sci-Cops spoof that attempts to illustrate the mechanistic problems in using minor mutations to create big evolutionary advances. Completed Aug. 1998.

Hugh Ross's Reasons to Believe - wonderful resources by real scientists on the divine Creation of this old and beautiful planet on which we live.

TalkOrigins is the site for the archives of the talk.origins site, with many articles on the issues of evolution and age of the earth from the secular perspective.

Blood clotting: the perspective of a respected expert on evolution.

The brilliant design of owl feathers for silent flight - an article at National Geographic.


Curator: Jeff Lindsay Contact:
Last Updated: May 10, 2005
URL: "http://www.jefflindsay.com/DesignFlaws.shtml"